Black House

BOTTOM LINE: Downbeat thriller shifts from noir territory to stalk-'n'-slash horror with compelling smoothness.

Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival

AMSTERDAM -- The darker side of the insurance business is explored in "Black House," another example of how current Korean cinema is re-energizing seemingly worn-out genres. Shin Terra's domestically money-spinning condensation of a 400-page 1997 Japanese novel (previously filmed in 1999 by Morita Yoshimitsu) has rather narrow international appeal, and will likely make its biggest impact via DVD and adventurous-minded festivals.

"The people are all frauds -- we need to stay sharp" is the philosophy espoused by bosses at the insurance company whose latest recruit is 30-ish Jun-Oh (Hwang Jun-min). This earnest, bumbling Clark Kent lookalike is a sensitive idealist whose optimism lands him in major trouble when his services are requested by morose, reclusive Chung-bae (Kang Shin-il). Visiting the forbidding, remote residence, which gives the film its title, Jun-oh discovers Chung-bae's young stepson hanging in his bedroom. He suspects homicide rather than the suicide.

Chung-bae's increasingly intimidating and erratic behavior convinces Jun-oh that's he's become the "prey" of a textbook psychopath. The client is presented as such an obvious heavy, however, that only the doziest audiences will fail to sniff a major "twist" in the offing. This duly arrives just after halfway, and "Black House" then segues from clammy, slowburning atmospherics and "Double Indemnity"-style intrigues to more Grand-Guignol chills, climaxing in an extended sequence in a stygian charnel-house of a basement where the gory cruelties rival those of Miike Takashi's notorious "Audition."

Second-time director Shin has assembled a slick, classy package, considerably boosted by Choi Ju-young's widescreen compositions and Choi Seung-hyun's ominous piano-and-strings score (subtly incorporating several nods to Bernard Herrmann's classic work on Hitchcock's "Psycho"). "Black House" has considerable remake potential, although a needlessly protracted finale (two endings and a coda) cries out for brutal trimming.

A CJ Entertainment/Kadokawa Partnership production
Sales: CJ Entertainment
Director: Shin Terra
Writer: Lee Young-jong, Kim Sung-ho
Based on the novel by: Yusuke Kishi
Producer: Yoo Il-han
Director of photography: Choi Joo-young
Production designer: Jo Haw-seong
Music: Choi Seung-hyun
Co-producer: Taiichi Inoue
Costume designer: Shin Seung-heui
Editor: Nam Na-young
Jun-oh: Hwang Jung-min
Park Chunh-bae: Kang Shin-il
Shin Yi-hwa: Yoo Se-on
Mi-na: Kim Seo-hyeong
Running time -- 103 minutes
No MPAA rating